In the studio where the lion roared during the Golden Age of Hollywood, musicals were a commonplace genre that often led to box office gold. When it came to MGM-produced musicals, Esther Williams was more than just a leading lady for the studio. She was one of their queens, especially when it came to a genre she would come to dominate.
Williams, who died on June 6 at age 91, was the queen of the “aqua-musical” – in which musical sequences often featured complex sequences with choreographed swimming and diving moves (better known as synchronized swimming). While she was never an awards contender of any kind, Williams was one of MGM’s most bankable names – especially during the 1940s and 1950s. Her athletic prowess and stunning beauty combined to make her an extremely popular face, and those talents were constantly on display during the era she would achieve her great popularity.
Upon signing with MGM after working alongside showman Billy Rose where she displayed her swimming prowess (alongside legendary Tarzan actor & fellow swimmer Johnny Weissmuller), Williams immediately moved her way up the studio ranks. Her film debut came as a love interest for Mickey Rooney’s titular character in the 1942 film Andy Hardy’s Double Life. She would follow her Hardy gig with a small supporting role in the 1943 war drama A Guy Named Joe. Then came her first movie in which swimming would play a pivotal role – 1944’s Bathing Beauty, co-starring alongside
comic Red Skelton. While the swimming sequences weren’t a major part of the film, they were major in Williams’ ascension to being a studio goddess.
Williams would continue to perform in MGM musicals throughout the 1940s, including Ziegfeld Follies, Thrill of a Romance, Easy to Wed (with Lucille Ball and often co-star Van Johnson) and Fiesta. Thrill of a Romance and 1948’s This Time for Keeps would introduce audiences to the “aqua-musical” – allowing Williams’ natural swimming talents to be central to both films’ plotlines. The 1949 musical comedy Take Me Out to the Ball Game would need no such strategy, especially when she was starring alongside Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. That same year, she was back in a swimsuit for the romantic musical comedy Neptune’s Daughter – where she sang the immortal duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
with leading man Ricardo Montalban. That song earned its composer Frank Loesser the Best Song Oscar the following year.
The 1950s would continue Williams in her swimming-acting mode, but did feature a more unique project in the 1952 musical biopic Million Dollar Mermaid. The film was based on the life of Annette Kellerman, an Australian woman who overcame illness to become one of the most significant swimmers who ever lived. Her follow-up project was 1953’s Dangerous When Wet, when she shared screen time with the cat-and-mouse duo of Tom and Jerry and future husband Fernando Lamas. Williams’ output would wind down at MGM for the next three years, before leaving the studio in 1956. She made one significant post-MGM project in the 1956 Universal-produced drama The Unguarded Moment. By the 1960s, Williams had departed the movies and quietly settled into retirement. Her last film appearance was as a guest star in the 1994 MGM retrospective That’s Entertainment! III.
Yet Esther Williams’ cinematic reputation lies largely on her ability to carry out one memorable sequence after another with her swimming talent being brought out on full display. Her synchronized swimming sequences in movies made her one of the most successful actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and her work set a filmmaking standard throughout that era. Williams didn’t just become the star of the “aqua-musical” genre – she was the leading force and the queen of it.